Metamorphoses is a wet dreamscape, and Kimberly Akimbo has a skewed charm

Metamorphoses, Kimberly Akimbo

Metamorphoses- By Mary Zimmerman. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through Oct. 10 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road. Call 314-968-4925.

Kimberly Akimbo- By David Lindsay-Abaire. Performed by HotHouse Theatre Company through Sept. 27 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Call 314-534-1111.

Latecomers to the Loretto-Hilton theater were denied entry into the auditorium while Repertory Theatre of St. Louis artistic director Steve Woolf was addressing the audience before the opening-night performance of Metamorphoses. Only after Woolf was done gushing over corporate sponsor Monsanto Fund and the play was up and running were the tardy allowed to take their seats. It seemed a clear case of misplaced priorities.

With his customary subdued understatement, Woolf heralded the Rep's production of Metamorphoses as a "major theatrical event." His encomium was two-thirds accurate: There is definitely a sense of event about this retooling of Greek myths, and there's no denying that the evening is theatrical. As women are transformed into birds and lovers become entwined trees, these tales of creation and lamentations of death play out with sublime beauty. Occasionally, Metamorphoses even provides a kind of epiphany that holds the audience spellbound. But as to whether there's anything major here -- or if, on the contrary, this wet dreamscape isn't more on the order of an idiosyncratic curiosity -- viewers will decide for themselves.

Oh, it's wet all right. Creator-writer Mary Zimmerman unspools her stories around a black pool, 27 feet square. Why a pool? Because myths often chronicle tales of the elements, of which water is foremost. When a myth involves someone like Poseidon, god of the sea, this unique set enhances that telling. But in other sequences it seems to be an affectation.

When he ran 20th Century Fox, producer Darryl Zanuck had a surefire formula for making westerns: Any time a campfire scene was too slow, he'd say, "Throw in a snake." A snake will always arouse viewer interest. Here the formula is: Whenever the action begins to lag, have the performers thrash through the pool. Sure enough, sheets of water cascading across the auditorium do rekindle attention. But a little sloshing goes a long way. During the course of this 95-minute intermissionless event, there are times when all that water intrudes upon, rather than enhances, the evening's business.

One assumes that at least part of the evening's business is to allow the viewer to ponder the role of myth. What is mythology, anyway, other than a means of explaining who we are, why we are who we are and how we got here? Myths suggest that if even the all-powerful gods could find themselves at the mercy of a random universe, the essential truth of our own mortal fallibility seems somehow more forgivable, if not understandable.

The original Metamorphoses was composed in Latin verse 2,000 years ago by the Roman poet Ovid. As translated by contemporary poet David Slavitt and distilled by Zimmerman, the text here is almost always crystal-clear. But Zimmerman is not content with clarity; she insists on dumbing down the legends. When, for instance, King Midas wants to turn all he touches into gold, Bacchus replies, "That's a really, really bad idea." Some viewers will find this populist spin amusing; others might find it a really bad idea.

But there can be no disputing the high caliber of this visually stunning Rep mounting. The liquid set -- complete with waterfall -- is pristine, and the gorgeous lighting seems to be refracted through golden honey.

Although there's not a weak link among the ten performers, there is an intriguing disparity in how they approach the material. Those actors who have worked in prior Zimmerman offerings seem to have been trained to subordinate their personalities to the good of the production. Then there are newcomers to Zimmerman (Andrew Long, for instance, who is an affecting King Midas); their character-driven performances remind one of wild horses whose spirits haven't yet been broken.

In addition to Midas, the gang's all here: Orpheus and Eurydice, Aphrodite, Halcyone, Eros. Like surprise guest stars, Pandora and Narcissus make unbilled cameo appearances. The evening is rampant with jealousy, greed, incest. But of all the vices that are chronicled in the lambent world that is Metamorphoses, none is more rueful than the egoism of the show's creator. Despite the fact that Zimmerman never set foot in St. Louis, the Rep is contractually required to credit her as the director of this regional theater production. Wouldn't you think that after all her time spent in the company of the gods, Zimmerman would know the difference between a myth and a lie?

Meanwhile, the new-season opener at HotHouse Theatre Company has all but been ignored, swamped by the media focus on Metamorphoses. One hopes there are audiences for both productions, because Kimberly Akimbo is everything Metamorphoses is not. It's raw, brash, crass, terribly irreverent and at times outrageously funny. Yet in its own bizarre way, this new play touches on some of the same eternal themes that concerned the ancients. "I'm like the guy on the hill pushing the rock," the blue-collar father bemoans, though he wouldn't know Sisyphus if he bought him a drink at the corner bar.

The opening scene deftly establishes the play's peculiar premise. A gray-haired woman in her seventies sits on a bench, numbly braving the New Jersey winter chill as she waits for a ride that is now two hours late. Finally her errant, tardy son arrives to pick her up. But as the scene plays out, the viewer slowly realizes that this fellow is not the old woman's son; he is her father. We have entered a universe in which the world is turned inside out.

Indeed, the world has not been fair to Kimberly (Sally Eaton). She suffers from an abnormally accelerated physical condition whereby her body ages four and a half times more quickly than it should. When she was four, she looked eighteen. When she's twenty, she'll look ninety -- if she makes it to twenty. The life expectancy for those with this infliction is sixteen years, and this week marks Kim's sixteenth birthday, which of course her self-absorbed family forgets.

For if Kim is physically mature beyond her years, her parents are mentally immature. Dad (B. Weller) is little more than a good-natured, hard-drinking loser. Mom (Pamela Reckamp) is a pregnant neurotic, a hypochondriac incapable of taking care of herself; more often than not, Kimberly must mother her own mom. Then there's Aunt Debra (Carrie Hegdahl), con artist extraordinaire. Eager to move to Miami, Debra has a new get-rich-quick scheme. When her niece suggests that Auntie get a job instead and go to Miami later, Debra explodes, "I don't have time for later! My whole life has been later!"

But clearly, the only person in this rogue's gallery who can't wait for later is Kim herself. The specter of imminent death hangs over this play like the Secret Word on Groucho Marx's 1950s television show, You Bet Your Life ("a common word, something you see every day"). No one wants to utter this dreaded word. Yet when Kim holds up an ivory cube and says, "Look at this dice, Dad," Pop is only too eager to point that that "the singular of dice is die."

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is no stranger to black comedy. Because his earlier play Fuddy Meers also found humor in the dysfunctional (Fuddy Meers will be staged at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley November 14-22), some folks dismiss Lindsay-Abaire as a one-trick pony. But this play is not to be dismissed. It is sharply written, tightly constructed and it moves like a house ablaze. Many comedies are so funny you laugh till you cry; here, you laugh till you think.

As Kim, Eaton has the role of a lifetime. Consider the journey she must travel: She is an older actress portraying a sixteen-year-old who has already passed menopause. And when the plot's machinations compel the teen to put on a disguise and pretend to be old -- when, in effect, Eaton must pretend to be onstage who she really is off -- the viewer is transported to a poignant Cloud-cuckooland worthy of Pirandello. This is Freaky Friday with real freaks. Eaton develops a lovely rapport with Kevin O'Brien, who portrays an ungainly, anagram-obsessed classmate who is allowed entry into Kimberly's askew world.

Kim doesn't want to romp with the gods. All she craves is what most of us take for granted: normality. In a moment of overwhelming frustration, she pleads with her mother, "Can we just be normal for a few minutes?" But in Kimberly Akimbo, normality is as elusive as quicksilver, for which the viewer can be extremely grateful.

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